Arts for Action's Sake

The Last Ballad—A Classic "Social" Novel

February 8, 2018

Tags: social protest novel, Upton Sinclair, The Jungle

I wrote a week or so ago about the general disdain for “social” or “social protest” novels (also called “social problem” novels) among the lit biz powers that be. Their prevailing attitude seems to be that readers aren’t interested in fiction that comes freighted with a message. As one acclaimed novelist put it, “The landscape of literary history is littered with the wreckage of writers who thought they were on a mission.”

Just as there’s no unanimity about the proper name for this type of fiction, there’s disagreement about whether the plot must revolve around the struggles of workers, or if protesting other social problems are acceptable literary fodder, such as the economic demoralization and destruction of the middle class. Ayn Rand certainly thought so, when she published what is arguably the most influential social protest novel of all time, Atlas Shrugged. And although my political leanings (more…)

Posterity Can Wait

January 10, 2018

Tags: social protest novel, publishing business, The Jungle, Uncle Tom's Cabin

"Most Read Novel" in 2017
Novelists quickly learn that any book review is “subjective.” I recently discovered that a reviewer’s subjectivity extends beyond the novel itself to its genre. In an otherwise enthusiastic review of The Piketty Problem, the Kirkus reviewer opined that “the only problem with this absorbing story” was my describing it as a “social” or “social protest” novel along the lines of The Jungle or Uncle Tom’s Cabin, because “instead of depicting the struggles of the working class, the tale skillfully shows readers how middle- and upper-class people talk about the rights of workers.”

This narrow-minded opinion about what constitutes a social protest novel seems laughable at best, dangerously out of touch at worst. (I did complain to Kirkus, to no avail, that Uncle Tom’s Cabin wasn’t about the struggles of the working class either, unless the reviewer’s definition included slaves.) But it does seem to reflect the prevailing attitude in the lit biz, (more…)

In This Time of Trump, What the Hell Happened to the Social Protest Novel?

October 16, 2017

Tags: social protest novel, The Jungle, Trump, Upton Sinclair, Class Mom

In advocating for a larger role for the arts in promoting societal change, the book world—or the lit biz as I like to call it—seems the logical place to start. Not only is serious fiction what I know best, but it’s also the medium that historically has had the most impact on society’s perceptions and actions, thanks to the “social protest” novel, a genre that sadly has fallen into disfavor among publishers to the point of basically disappearing. (more…)